As the dust settles after last week’s “showdown” at the United Nations over the Palestinian application for membership, several initial conclusions can be drawn.
First, the United States now is thoroughly out of touch with most of the international community when it comes to Palestine and Israel. It has positioned itself to the right of the most right-wing, pro-settler government in Israeli history. This was reflected in the joyful reception of President Obama’s speech by Israeli prime minister Netanyahu and his right-wing foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, as well as in the Israel lobby’s satisfied response to Obama’s caving in to Israeli demands all along the line.
In an almost surreal display of pandering, Republican presidential candidates—notably Texas governor Rick Perry—disparaged the president for “appeasing” the Palestinians and thereby betraying Israel. This rhetoric came despite the fact that Obama single-handedly sabotaged the Palestinians’ UN bid while publicly lecturing them and the entire General Assembly on the suffering of Israelis without so much as a word acknowledging Israeli occupation, violence and settlements—not to mention the Palestinian suffering caused by these American-supported policies. Obama's domestic electioneering in the face of a historic demand by the long-suffering Palestinians was not lost on the world. Taken in the context of the Arab Spring and its wave of popular demands for human and political rights, it means that the United States has lost all credibility as an honest broker in this conflict.
The second conclusion to be drawn is that after two decades of the U.S. behaving as “Israel’s lawyer,” the two-state solution is now dead. It has been buried by forty-four years of unceasing Israeli colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem under the benevolent gaze of nine successive U.S. administrations. The most recent in a long line of boastful Israeli announcements of further settlement construction in occupied Arab East Jerusalem last week is a perfect illustration of this truth. Despite the usual expression of “disappointment” from the White House and the State Department, the United States has, in fact, again acquiesced to the illegal colonization of more occupied Palestinian territory. This served as a ceremonial last nail in the coffin of the disastrous American-led process that since the beginning of peace negotiations in Madrid in 1991 oversaw and facilitated the near tripling of the illegal Israeli settler population to well over half a million and the imposition of severe restrictions on the movement of over 4 million Palestinians.
For those of us who have watched this “peace” process unfold since then, the status quo should perhaps be seen not so much as signifying the failure of the process but rather as underlining its sole purpose. As Mouin Rabbani put it in the London Review of Books, “the so-called peace process is working precisely as designed, to give political cover to Israeli colonization and maintain America’s diplomatic monopoly.” Though the time of the two-state solution has passed, it is undoubtedly time for the U.S. government to be pushed aside as sole mediator.
The final conclusion to be drawn is that the Palestinian leadership is at a crossroads: It has taken a long-overdue first step to re-internationalize Palestine’s struggle for liberty and self-determination and to take matters out of the hands of American diplomats who for decades have systematically advanced Israel’s interests at the expense of the Palestinians. The attempt to produce more objective stewardship of negotiations by taking the Palestinian case to the UN will clearly fail in the short term due to U.S. opposition. Nevertheless, it was relatively successful in galvanizing international support for the Palestinians almost everywhere outside of the fact-free bubble that is the DC beltway and much of the mainstream media.
The question now is what will the Palestinians' next step be? It is clear where the United States stands and will continue to stand, certainly until November 2012 if not long afterwards. For all the significant changes in perceptions of the conflict at the grassroots level in the United States, the continued power of the Israel lobby in Congress shows that on the political level nothing has changed. As far as Israel is concerned, even a leftward shift is unlikely to bring about meaningful change to decades of Labor, Likud and Kadima-supported occupation and settlement policies, at least not in the near term.
Abbas’ speech at the UN, therefore, was only the beginning of what many Palestinians agree needs to be a new long-term strategy for national liberation. The focus of this new strategy will have to return from a two-decade hiatus at a rigged negotiating table to its original and most representative form: popular, grassroots, nonviolent struggle on the ground and among Palestinians in exile. The good news for the Palestinians is that the infrastructure for such a struggle is already in place after years of nonviolent protest in the villages of the West Bank and could grow with the recently minted model of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions to consider. A highly coordinated and truly massive campaign of active nonviolence could shock the conscience of the world and energize Palestinians everywhere. The bad news for the Israelis—who have brutally repressed nonviolent protest in villages such as Bilin, Nilin, Nebi Saleh, Walaja and many other places over the past six years—is that, according to Ministry of Defense political-military chief Amos Gilad, “we [the Israelis] don’t do Gandhi very well.”
In the coming months we will see what the Palestinian leadership will do (both those in Gaza and those in Ramallah) and whether they can succeed in reunifying the divided Palestinian national movement; how brazenly the Israeli government will provoke the Palestinians; and whether the Palestinians, the Arabs and especially the international community will be up to the challenge of wresting from the American grip the keys to a negotiating process in need of almost complete remodeling on the basis of international law and UN resolutions, after decades of American mishandling.
In the meantime, should President Obama find the time to reflect upon his decision to forsake Palestinian freedom in favor of pandering to the Israel lobby, he would do well to remember the following thought from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: "There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic…but one must take it because it is right."
Rashid Khalidi is Edward Said Professor Arab Studies at Columbia and author of The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (Beacon, 2007). He was an advisor to the Palestinian delegation in Madrid and DC from 1991–1993.